Journalist and Author Tom Teicholz Shares His Early Archives in Being There

Tom Teicholz

Tom Teicholz

By Lindsey Wojcik

“It is hard to describe the delirium that accompanied each of those first publications. Each was some great victory and validation. Each felt like, in the words of the poet Charlie Sheen, ‘winning.’ It was as if I was climbing some imaginary mountain face and each published story was a new peak.”

Tom Teicholz nails the emotions that most journalists experience during the first few years of their career in the introduction to his collection of articles, Being There: Journalism 1978–2000. As a law student at Columbia University, Teicholz seemingly stumbled into his first assignment to interview Jerzy Kosinski for a free community newspaper that was distributed in Manhattan’s Upper East Side neighborhood. From there, his connections with editors and writers expanded, and essentially, his journalism career was launched.

Being There features articles with entertainers, literary, and film figures, as well as pieces on President Reagan’s trip to Bitburg, and the first Iraq war—among others. Teicholz recently took some time to talk to me about his writing process, his criteria for selecting which pieces to include in the collection, how journalism has changed since started in the industry, and why writers should “marry well.” 

Lindsey Wojcik: What enticed you about being a writer? Did you always want to write or did something specific inspire you to pursue it?

Tom Teicholz: I’ve always been someone with a great memory who can record and report events, never been shy about expressing my opinion, and always been interested and loved to talking to new people. Starting around fourth grade friends of mine started forming bands and at first, I wrote songs for them. Later (around like sixth grade) having no musical or singing ability, I started to write poems. I had wonderful teachers in ninth grade (Wilson Alling) and in eleventh (Jane Bendetson) who encouraged me, and I went to college writing short stories and with the ambition of writing a novel. While at college, I started writing book reviews, in part because when I read a novel I had opinions and questions I wanted to ask the author, and that pretty much leads to where Being There starts…at the beginning of my career in journalism.

LW: What is your writing process like?

TT: It has evolved over the years—and in some ways remained the same. At first, for the interviews I did in Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine, it was all about preparing the questions so that the story would have a beginning, middle and end; and then editing the transcripts to maximum effect. When I started writing articles, at first I was just winging it, and they were somewhat more formal than necessary. Over the years, I found a voice (or voices) that I’m most comfortable using. I always try and focus on: What’s interesting about this to me and why should anyone else care? And equally important, or more, is: Tell the facts. When I’m not sure about the former, I do the latter, and once I do, I always figure out what it is I want to say.

LW: What was the drive behind creating the Being There: Journalism 1978-2000? What were you looking for when you were putting it together?

TT: I’ve been living in Los Angeles for 20 years and most of my friends—and readers—know me from my work here, but most of them don’t know all this great work I did at the start of my career when I was living in New York. Also, most of these articles appeared before there was Google, or even the Internet, so I wanted to collect them and put those stories back in circulation—many of which feature artists at the start of their career (Jeff Bridges, Roz Chast, Ian Frazier) or who are no longer living (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Jerzy Kosinski, Bill Graham) or have become masters of their craft (Tom McGuane, Cynthia Ozick).

LW: The book features essays about an eclectic mix of subjects ranging from A-list celebrities to politicians. How did you select which essays to include in the book?

TT: My criteria was simple: Does it still hold up? Is it interesting? Are you learning something you otherwise might not know? 

LW: Were there any particular subjects featured in the book that you were intimidated by when you first started covering their stories?

TT: Of course! It takes a certain chutzpah to go head-to-head with Nobel Prize-winning authors or do a Paris Review interview with the august Cynthia Ozick, or be Michael Milken’s first interview after his time in prison. Each was intimidating in its own way. Also to write about the testimony of Holocaust survivors, about Treblinka, about Nazi War criminals being brought to justice, was daunting, even overwhelming. But I just kept telling myself that if I could build what I called a “Cathedral of Facts,” I would be okay.

LW: You've picked up some awards over the course of your career. How did the process of putting together this collection of essays allow you to reflect on your career?

TT: It’s funny: Each piece is its own adventure, but then they are published and they fade from one’s consciousness. Pulling all these articles together, re-reading them, and having them stack up into a book was tremendously gratifying. It is the satisfaction of putting (at least the first part of) your house in order. The second part is The Best of Tommywood, which will be published next year.

LW: Journalism has undergone quite the transformation since you first got in the business. What has impacted you the most from that change and how have you adapted?

TT: A combination of the Internet, in all its Shiva-destroyer-of-industries power, the bust-and-booms of the Internet bubbles, and the recession changed everything. At one moment, it seemed like those changes were for the worst: Publications went away and those that remained were paying a fraction of what they did—same for book publishers. And people started saying things like “Content wants to be free.” And there were all these startups—content farms among them, that believed mass producing stories at below minimum wage amounts was “good enough.”

I spent about a year complaining and despairing of being able to make a living writing. Then when the dust settled, a few things became clear. Not all content is created equal. People (and the advertisers and brands who are trying to influence them) want authenticity and they want quality—and that is something that, once again, magazines, book publisher, websites, and brands are willing to pay for. Moreover, one of the things that the Internet leveled was the walls that existed between different types of paid writing—journalism, advertising, publicity, not-for-profits, museums—everyone understands now that you need to make a living. There is no selling out: You are your own brand and you take your integrity with you to each assignment. And as long as you are transparent about any potential conflicts, no one minds. Although it now takes three times as many gigs to make one paycheck from the glory days, that’s okay because today there are more places to write for and places to publish than ever before. There is no piece that you write that you can’t publish—even if you have to publish it yourself. And today, “Content is King.”

LW: You do quite a bit of freelance work. How can young journalists become a successful freelancers in this market?

TT: Same as ever: Write a lot, pitch a lot, hang out a lot, follow up a lot, be opportunistic, entrepreneurial, find a home for your work (even if you have to create it yourself), and let people know about your work.

LW: Where do you think the future of the trade is going? 

TT: I can’t say. I don’t know how long-form investigative journalism, particularly foreign stories, will continue to be supported. And if publishers don’t pay writers enough to live on while they are writing a book, that too will have an impact. However, there will always be people who see a story, or have a story to tell, who feel they have no other choice than to tell it on whatever platform in whatever media they can. And writers will continue to have side-gigs, or teaching gigs, or commercial writing gigs to support writing those stories that they would be happy to publish for free (even if they have to).

LW: What's the best advice you've ever received and what advice do you offer up-and-coming journalists?

TT: The best advice I received about freelancing was: Be your own bank. Income as a writer is irregular and the rent is due the first of the month. You have to learn how to finance your writing career via credit lines, savings, etc. You have to live a sustainable life to have a sustainable career.

And the advice that I sometimes give up-and-coming journalists is: Marry well. By that I don’t mean marry for money. What I mean is that the writing life is hard, sometimes lonely, and requires a certain selfishness, as well as moments of grandiosity and self-delusion. You need a great partner to be your support, your inspiration, your motivation, and your reality check. I am fortunate that my wife, Amy Rappeport is mine, and I wish such good fortune on all writers.

To learn more about Tom Teicholz, visit his official website or follow him on Twitter @TomTeicholz.

The Writer's Bone Interviews Archive

A Conversation With Author Jennifer Steil

Jennifer Steil

Jennifer Steil

By Daniel Ford

Not only has Jennifer Steil’s novel The Ambassador's Wife garnered rave reviews from the likes of Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist and won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel, it’s also being developed into a television series starring Anne Hathaway!

Steil talked to me recently about her journalism career, how her brief experience as a hostage helped inspire The Ambassador's Wife, and how writers should write even when they aren’t inspired.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or was that something that grew organically over time?

Jennifer Steil: I actually grew up wanting to be an actor. In second grade I wrote and directed a play about Bambi, in which I played Bambi’s mother. We even made cookies for intermission.  After that illustrious start, I continued to perform in local and school theaters until I headed off to Oberlin College, where I majored in theater.

But after four years of working as an actor in Seattle, I became frustrated with the roles available to women. I wanted to play paleontologists and astronauts but instead got stuck playing ingénues and prostitutes. Why were there so few interesting roles for women? Why were so few plays by women getting produced? My writing practice was born out of this frustration. I started writing the things I wished my characters could say. After I spent a couple of years working on short stories, I completed an MFA in creative writing/fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. For some reason I had the delusion that I could support my acting career with creative writing. I really don’t know why someone didn’t stop me. Not until I was about to finish my MFA did I realize I was going to be waitressing the rest of my life if I didn’t develop some more marketable skills. I was dating a journalist at the time, and his life seemed pretty interesting, so I applied to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, which—despite my utter lack of experience—accepted me. It was a very wise decision. And now, somewhat unbelievably, I do support myself and my family by writing fiction.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

JS: An obsession with magic and fairytales made me a dreamy child, more often present in worlds far from here. I would always rather read than play with my friends, ride my bicycle, or play games with my family. If I could have, I would have climbed inside my books. My first “novel” was about four children who went on magical adventures every time they ate berries from a certain bush. The color of the berry they ate determined the color of the magical world they entered.

I spent a lot of time as a child reading through a leather-bound set of Books of Knowledge, which included not only fiction but also the history of King Richard III and an explanation of how sugar is made. I thought these books—a combination of all I loved—were magical. They included everything interesting, no matter what genre.

As an adult, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto has inspired me. When I first read that book I thought, “I can’t do this. I cannot write something that beautiful.” But it made me want to try. And to keep trying. Recently I have loved Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. Oh, and I adore Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra.

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

JS: I never outline. I rarely know where a story or novel is going until I write it. An outline would almost keep me from wanting to write the story at all. It would have already been thought out and I might lose interest. I write out of curiosity to see what happens next. I write scenes which I then shuffle like cards in a deck to get them in the right order. Because I write like this, I rewrite a lot. I write dozens of drafts of every book, refining plot points, character, momentum, and place.

I never listen to music. Words distract me. Even if I listen to wordless classical music, I find the mood of it distracting. I am allergic to noise in a world that appears to have very few silent corners left. In La Paz, we can see six different construction sites from the windows of our house. My work is often accompanied by the clatter of jackhammers and the whine of electric saws. The ubiquitous children’s birthday party clowns broadcast their inane acts over loudspeakers from lawns around us on weekends. Adult parties with deafening soundtracks go on until dawn. These sounds take a serious toll on my mental state. When we eventually settle down, I think I need to create an office with padded, soundproof walls.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

JS: The current state of journalism is dire. I am particularly obsessed with the plight of international journalism. Because of dwindling resources, newspapers have closed most of their foreign bureaus. The result is a poorer understanding of the world. I firmly believe that reporters need to live in the country they cover in order to best come to grips with its complexities. After four years I felt I was only beginning to understand Yemen—so how was a reporter who parachuted in for a few days supposed to figure out anything at all?

Now, when I see stories about Syria or Yemen, the dateline is Beirut or Cairo rather than Damascus or Sana’a. No newspaper actually has full-time staff reporters living in these countries. Of course, these are countries in disastrous circumstances, but understanding what is going on there is important to our understanding of the Middle East. I don’t believe anything I see reported about Yemen, because no one has reporters living there. I get most of my news about Yemen from my Yemeni friends, via Facebook, Twitter, or emails.

Working as a reporter taught me how the world works. While covering five small towns in New Jersey I learned how towns operated, how school boards worked, how hospitals were funded, and how to make friends with police detectives. I also learned a great deal about heroin addiction, suicide, Olympic luging, criminal reports, running for political office, and heart transplant surgery. It’s a fascinating job and a never-ending education.

One of the most entertaining features I wrote for a magazine was a piece on swing clubs for Playgirl magazine. You would not believe how many swing clubs there are in the world. Or who goes to them.

DF: What inspired you to write The Ambassador’s Wife?

JS: I suppose it was my own brief experience as a hostage that gave me the first germ of the story. In 2009, when I was six and a half months pregnant with my daughter, four other women and I were taken hostage by a group of Yemeni tribesmen. We had been hiking in the mountains and had walked nearly three hours from the closest road. The men with AK-47s who surrounded us were not terrorists. It was simply an opportunistic kidnapping by a clearly mentally unstable sheikh. It was a terrifying experience, but we were fortunate that the Yemeni government was able to negotiate our release later that same afternoon.

Because I began writing the novel a couple of weeks after my daughter was born, parenthood was also an inspiration. What would happen if I woman left a child behind when she was taken hostage? What would happen if she were forced to nurse a stranger’s child? What would her bond with that child do to her marriage? These questions interested me. (Other inspirations are included below in other answers)

DF: You first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, was a memoir based on your adventures as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a. Why the jump to fiction?

JS: Writing the memoir felt very much like an extension of my journalism career. I was meticulous in my reporting and writing, making absolutely sure that every word was true. I consulted experts on terrorism and Arabic and interviewed my reporters and copied conversations verbatim from my journals. By the time I was done writing that book, I was really tired of telling the truth. I longed for the freedom to make stuff up.

At that time I had also just begun moved in with the man who is now my husband, then the British Ambassador to Yemen. After living alone in the old city of Sana’a and wandering the country relatively freely, I found myself suddenly living in a very different world. I could no longer leave the house without a bodyguard. We traveled by armored car. We had hostage negotiators, British ministers, and military officers in our guest bedrooms. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the weirdness that is diplomatic life in a high-security environment. I found myself thinking, wow, I have got to use this in a book.

But I didn’t want to ruin my husband’s career that early in our marriage (my tone here is joking, just in case that wasn’t clear. I hope I never ruin my husband’s career!). So it seemed best to take the details of this odd world and set a completely fictional narrative in it.

DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?

JS: As I wrote, I began thinking about the hazards of westerners coming to the Middle East to “free” the women. When I first arrived in Yemen, a Maltese woman at a dinner party railed against western feminists who came to Yemen and tried to transplant western ideas of feminism. Many of these ideas would simply get women killed. Foreigners had to learn to work within a new cultural context, considering how their “help” will actually affect the lives of women.

I am an unabashed feminist, but when we parachute into totally foreign cultures, we need to consider which things will actually make women’s lives easier, and which things will simply plunge them into danger. This is something my character Miranda fails to consider seriously enough.

The more I wrote, the more issues came up. What would happen if an ambassador’s wife were kidnapped? Could he stay in post? Would he have to leave the country? Would he stay with his child or leave her to track down his wife? How could a group of relatively powerless women facilitate the rescue of a prisoner? In which ways are they better equipped for this than men are? What are the real effects of drone strikes in the Middle East? What are the limits of diplomacy?

There is a perception in the west that women in the Middle East are powerless. I wanted to explore the ways in which these women do have power. They have vast family connections. Their dress gives them anonymity in public. In The Ambassador’s Wife, it is Muslim women—not Miranda and not her husband the ambassador—who propel the plot.

When I met my husband, I was 38 years old with a career and identity of my own. It came as a shock to me to suddenly find myself introduced to people simply as “the ambassador’s wife.” I was defined by my husband rather than by my own achievements. Miranda has a similar experience when she marries Finn. She resents playing second fiddle. This struggle to retain identity gave me the title of the book.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?

JS: My two main characters, Miranda and Finn, inhabit a world quite like the one I live in with my husband. But unlike Miranda, I am not an artist. I cannot even draw. And both Miranda and Finn have backstories that are utterly unlike ours.  While the novel begins with a scene inspired by my kidnapping, the plot that unfolds is entirely fictional. None of the other characters—the diplomats, their wives, the Mazrooqi women—are based on specific people. A few have traits I observed in diplomats or their wives and I have lifted a few actual bits of conversation, but no one is based on a real person. Likewise with my Muslim women.

DF: The Ambassador’s Wife won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and now being developed into a television series! What has that experience been like and what can we look forward from you in the future?

JS: Surreal. The whole experience has been surreal. I don’t think I will believe the television deal until I see it on a screen. I’ve never had a television, but I might buy one to watch The Ambassador’s Wife!

I am launching into research for my next book, which will take place in Bolivia and probably Eastern Europe. I cannot tell you more than that right now.

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

JS: Write every day. Write when you are not inspired. Write when you only have five minutes. Write while your daughter is building a farm for bunnies around your ankles. Just write.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?

JS: When I was in high school in Vermont, I once let myself be dragged across a field by a Norwegian workhorse I was training to avoid embarrassing myself in front of a boy I loved by letting him escape.

To learn more about Jennifer Steil, visit his official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @jfsteil7.


Blue-Collar Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Diana Sperrazza

Diana Sperrazza

Diana Sperrazza

By Daniel Ford

There’s nothing better than promoting books based in your own backyard!

Author Diana Sperrazza, who was raised in a blue-collar neighborhood in West Springfield, Mass., recently talked to me about her journalism career, the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture, and the inspiration behind her debut novel, My Townie Heart.

Daniel Ford: Did you grow up wanting to become a writer, or is something that grew organically over time?

Diana Sperrazza: Journalism was really my first real calling and it was a strong one. But eventually I wanted to tell stories that were more personal. I was very specifically interested in the influence class has on how a person makes her way in the world. I left my job as a producer at CNN so I could do the low residency MFA program at Bennington College, where I did their nonfiction track. The only thing I could possibly imagine writing then was a memoir. But by the time I had finished writing my thesis, I was getting sick of talking about myself. I also began to doubt my own life was interesting enough to sustain a book. So I tried writing fiction that was influenced by my own life but told a more dramatic, bigger story. After a while, I knew it was the way I wanted to go. That said, I’m still getting used to the idea of actually being a fiction writer. 

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

DS: I remember reading all of Jane Austen as a child and young teen. Then there was this blackout period in my adolescence and early adulthood where I didn’t read fiction at all. I thought only nonfiction stories were worth anything. Once I began to write, I happened upon Russell Banks and Dorothy Allison and felt the truth behind their fiction and it changed how I thought about things. 

DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?

DS: I write intuitively, like I’m listening for the story inside of myself, but it sure wouldn’t look that way to an observer. I wrote My Townie Heart in bed with the television on (the sound was turned down) tuned to reruns of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” In a way, she kept me company. I also like to write in noisy coffee shops. Perhaps it’s the result of all the years of working in news, but it’s hard for me to work if it’s too quiet. I enjoy feeling the buzz of others around me.

DF: As someone who was trained as a journalist and made a living at it for a couple of years, I have to ask what you think of the current state of journalism and why was it something you pursued when you first started out? Also, what’s the most entertaining story you ever worked on?

DS: I’m almost 61 years old, so I was drawn to journalism back in the late ‘70s, in that heady post-Watergate time. I really did believe it could change the world. It seems incredibly naïve now to have placed so much faith in that institution, but back then, being a journalist was about having a higher calling and working to reveal the truth so things could be made right. These days, the news business is more involved with making money, often at the expense of just about everything else. There is still some great and courageous work being done out there, but it’s harder and more dangerous that it was when I was doing it. 

DF: What inspired you to write My Townie Heart?

DS: I was tremendously moved by the movie, “Mystic River.” Someone in my extended family was attacked as a child and I witnessed for myself how it changed everything. I went right out and read Dennis Lehane’s book. I was struck by how the blue collar characters were like the people I had grown up with and in my heart, I knew I had to write a story about them and about myself too.

DF: What made you decide to set the novel in the 1970s?

DS: So much changed in that era! Certainly it all started in the ‘60s, but it took the ‘70s to metastasize those changes, for people to feel them in their daily lives. So suddenly feminism, drugs, the counterculture, eastern spirituality—all of that became a felt reality, even in more traditional blue collar neighborhoods.

DF: What were some of the themes you wanted to tackle in the novel?

DS: Certainly I wanted to talk about trauma, and how and if you get over it. But I also wanted to talk about class. For the record, I don’t view those two subjects synonymously. Everyone is vulnerable to trauma. But if you grew up blue collar, you were probably told to quit your whining if you had problems, that it was better never to mention that your parents hadn’t finished high school (never mind college), or about how you had to work in a factory in the summer to pay for school. If there was violence or alcoholism in your family, you were supposed to cope and bury your shame. On the other hand, you also learned how to be self sufficient, how to work hard because no one was going to hand feed you anything, and, if you didn’t fall into the tempting traps of envy or bitterness, you gained a sense of your own integrity, because whatever you’ve done in the life is truly yours, not propped up by someone else’s efforts or money. I wanted to take those subjects out of the closet.

DF: How much of yourself—and the people you have daily interactions with—did you put into your main characters? How do you develop your characters in general?

DS: Most of the characters in my novel are composites of people I knew in certain periods in my life. Some are made up completely. Laura’s character is emotionally true of me. The details are invented, but the major themes are not: I am from a blue-collar neighborhood in West Springfield, Mass., and my father was an alcoholic. I had no sister, but I have two brothers. I had a hard time with college and left. The counterculture had an enormous impact on me. I got overwhelmed and agoraphobic as a young woman and had to work very hard, mostly on my own, to recover. I moved to New Mexico for a new start and went back to school, but I studied journalism, not law. I think my characters come together in my subconscious, where the real and the imagined can comfortably co-habitat.

DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?

DS: I’ve started writing another book, but am not going to say much about it yet. I’m still feeling my way with the story, but it’s about a middle-aged man who also has class issues. 

DF: What’s your advice to aspiring authors?

DS: A number of years ago my writing partner, Janice Gary (author of Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog-walking and Deliverance) heard this lecture at an AWP conference by Walter Moseley. He had just written his book on how to finish a novel, and he said that you have to work every day on your writing, even if you only visit it and read over the previous day’s work; you have to keep the connection current and alive. It was the best advice either of us had ever heard and both of us managed to finish our books. He was also the one who introduced me to the idea that writing comes out of your subconscious. It’s like a pipeline you have to keep open and clear.

DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself? 

DS: I love the Showtime series “Ray Donovan,” but I don’t talk like that. People from western Massachusetts sound nothing like people from Boston. Totally different accent!

To learn more about Diana Sperrazza, visit her official website, like her Facebook page, or follow her on Twitter @mytownieheart.


The Storymaker: A Conversation With Novelist John Benditt

John Benditt

John Benditt

By Daniel Ford

Here’s the first two lines of the description for author John Benditt’s debut novel The Boatmaker:

A fierce, complicated, silent man wakes from a fever dream compelled to build a boat and sail away from the small island where he was born. The boat carries him to the next, bigger, island, where he becomes locked in a drunken and violent affair whose explosion propels him all the way to the mainland.

That’s what we like here at Writer’s Bone.

Benditt writes in such an earthy and rhythmic tone and so deftly tackles issues that plague humanity that one forgets his previous profession was as a science journalist for the likes of Scientific American and Technology Review. He answered some of my questions recently about how he developed his voice, his inspiration for The Boatmaker, and how his journalism background helped his fiction writing.

Daniel Ford: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer and how did you develop your voice?

John Benditt: I’ve known that I wanted to be a writer since I was sixteen. It wasn’t really something I chose; it chose me. I had other ideas, generally more practical ideas, about what I wanted to be. But that was what I was. I think my voice emerged first by imitating writers I liked and later by just writing and writing, even though what I was writing wasn’t very good.

DF: Who were some of your early influences?

JB: My first influences were poets, since that’s what I wanted to be. The biggest early influence was Robert Creeley. I loved how spare his poems were, how chiseled they were, how much was left out. Creeley led me to William Carlos Williams, whom I loved as a poet, a prose-poet, and also as a writer of fiction. He wrote three great novels about his wife and his wife’s family. More people should read them.

DF: You’re a science journalist by trade, so I’m curious if any of those skills transferred over to writing fiction. What is your writing process like in general?

JB: I think journalism, if it’s done well, enforces clarity and the need to get the reader through the story to the end; those are skills every writer should have. My writing process begins with little bits and pieces scribbled on scraps of paper that later coalesce into something larger.

DF: Where did the idea for The Boatmaker originate?

JB: The Boatmaker began as a short story, written for a fiction workshop I was taking at the New School with Catherine Texier, who is a wonderful teacher. I wrote the story for a collection of short stories I thought I was writing at the time. The story was about a man who builds a boat and sails away from the little island where he was born. Later I wrote a second story about the same character when he reaches his first destination, Big Island. I thought I was done with him. But apparently he wasn’t done with me. That’s when a lot of other bits and pieces of his story began to appear.

DF: How did you go about developing your main character? In the novel, he’s reacting to a lot of things he’s never experienced, so how did you put yourself in his mindset in order to tell your story?

JB: Mostly it was a question of being receptive. The boatmaker arrived with a pretty fully developed personality and way of seeing things. I just tried to stay out of the way of that. I was tempted to prettify him a little, but I tried to avoid that. He is what he is.

DF: Your book touches on subjects that tend to spark intense debate—religion, race, etc. What were some of the ways you made your themes original while also tackling these issues?

JB: The story kept coming in, as I mentioned, in bits and pieces. And it held my interest. So I kept following along. I wasn’t thinking at all about “themes,” such as religion or race, while I was writing. I was just interested in the story of the boatmaker. When I was finished, I realized that these themes were there. But I didn’t pay much attention to them while I was writing, at least as themes. I just wanted to do justice to the story—to make it as vivid and compelling as it had seemed to me.

DF: Your use of language is so earthy and primal. Did that come out during the writing or was it fine-tuned during the editing process?

JB: Something of the tone was there in the original short story, which was called “Big Island.” But it evolved during the writing and editing. It got simpler, and it found a groove. The published book is definitely the outcome of a lot of polishing and weighing individual words and sentences. And a lot of deft suggestions from my editor, Meg Storey at Tin House.

DF: Now that you have a novel under your belt, what’s next?

JB: I have a bunch of short stories I’ve been working on. I also have the first part of a memoir about my father, who was a famous scientist. I suspect that the idea for another novel will also emerge, more or less the way The Boatmaker did. I’ve been blown off course enough times now to suspend judgment when it comes to plans for my writing.

DF: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

JB: Keep writing. I read somewhere an English writer said: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t give up.” I like that.

DF: Can you name one random fact about yourself?

JB: If I named it, would it still be random?

To learn more about John Benditt, visit his official website. 


Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown On Investigating Crime in Florida

Miami Herald’s Julie K. Brown On Investigating Crime in Florida

Julie K. Brown takes some time out of fighting the good journalistic fight to look back on her career and try to explain why Florida is a sunny place for shady people.